Friday, October 24, 2014

Oppression, Ignorance, or Empowerment?

Today I’m not going to talk about women.

If you know about my project, this is probably surprising, but my experience with Vite Trasformate taught me about so much more than just the experiences of women on the streets of Bologna. To be honest, I didn’t learn many new things about the exploitation of women. It was the same story: poverty, manipulation, and cycles of abuse. Of course, these stories are important; they must be told. I plan to tell them, but not today.

Today I want to talk about men.

Male readers, I want you to know that this post is not meant to blame or offend. I hope that it, instead, challenges you to see your importance in the fight against sexual exploitation. Be encouraged. There are ways that you can make a difference in this fight. Just because other men are a large part of the problem does not mean that you are not a vital part of the solution. If this post moves you to take part in a new way, please contact me here. I would love to get you connected to opportunities in your area.

Because I don’t speak Italian or Romanian, the Vite Trasformate staff and volunteers did all of the talking with the women – "Treasures," they call them – on the streets. This gave me the opportunity to observe the environment, the passersby, and the steady traffic on the Bolognese streets. It wasn’t long before I noticed that nearly all of the drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists in the area were men. My instinct was to judge these men, to glare at them as if their very presence in the neighborhood was disdainful.

Some certainly seemed to deserve this disdain. Once, a man yelled angrily out of a moving car in an attempt to shame the women on the street. At another corner, a group of three young men sipping on beers passed by multiple times, clearly interested in looking and lusting - not buying. One of the Treasures we spoke with pointed out another man as he passed, saying that he would often ominously linger in their area. She explained that this made her feel threatened and nervous.

The most disturbing male presence, though, was one that I didn’t initially notice, much less understand. While the staff talked to two Romanian women for longer than normal, I began to watch the cars that were driving by. Most would slow down slightly to see why a group had gathered on the street where normally only one or two women would stand. One driver did not have such neutral intentions. Within a span of 10 minutes, I noticed the same blue car with a silhouetted male driver pass by three times. The car would slow down more than most, long enough to survey the situation more thoroughly.

After we finished talking to the Romanian women, I asked one of the VT staff about this. She explained that this is likely a mafia member. Informally, the mafias in Italy control every major street. If a woman wants to work as a prostitute, she must pay "rent" in order to do so. In some cases, the mafia were even involved in the original trafficking of a girl. This means that she must pay off her "debt" to these same people who originally brought her to Italy. The staff member explained that the car I noticed was likely driven by a mafia member who was checking on his "property.
Not all men participated in the problem in this way, however. Some simply ignored the Treasures’ existence. I watched dozens of men drive or walk by, refusing to look these women in the eye, as if they are a part of the scenery, not exploited human beings. I cannot judge the reason for this, but I do know that:
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
~Edmund Burke
These observations left me standing on a street corner in Italy, trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered view of men. I have had a life free of the most destructive forms of sexism. The important men in my life have never once caused or ignored oppression for me personally. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if my experience was the vast exception. I could feel myself losing a - what then seemed naïve - hope that men are a viable and important part of the solution to sexual exploitation.

Just as the hope began to truly drain away, it was time to get back in the car to conclude our time on the streets. Waiting for us less than a block away was a male volunteer. It dawned on me that this young man was spending hours on a Friday night, doing his part to empower exploited women. The outreach groups always travel with a male driver so that someone can watch the surroundings and be prepared to intervene if any danger is posed to the Treasures or female volunteers. Though these men are not able to talk to the Treasures themselves, for the sake of their trust and comfort, the men want to help in whatever way they can. They care about the empowerment of all women, including those oppressed or ignored by the majority of men.

These men’s presence has far more significance than just a protective one, though. In a country where men are assumed to frequent prostitutes and powerful men soliciting minors for sex is seen as a joke, men who choose something besides participation and passivity are extremely important. I’m a firm believer that sexual exploitation is, in part, and economic problem. This means that addressing both the supply and demand are important for the solution.

Unfortunately, many cultures assume a constant and unchanging demand for sex that will always make trafficking a profitable game. Even more unfortunate for the men in these cultures is that they individually are assumed to be participating in the exploitation of women unless they take a firm stand to the contrary. Taking this stand for women goes against what many men were raised to believe: that sexual aggression and dominance is inherent in your manhood. That isn’t fair for all of you good men out there, but it’s the hard truth. Furthermore, in a time when "feminism" is a divisive word, men risk ridicule when they join this fight, but are women’s lives worth less than the pursuit of a shallow version of manhood?

For every man that does nothing in response to this glaring problem, there is a man who perpetuates the problem and assumes that he does so with the approval of his silent brothers. The world needs men who spend their Friday nights not just ignoring the problem, but fighting it. A shift in other men’s views will only begin when their friends, brothers, and fathers do not simply abstain from participation, but are vocal about and active upon their desire to empower exploited women.

When I walked the streets with Vite Trasformate, I encountered three types of men: men who oppressed, men who ignored, and men who empowered. Though the first two far outnumbered the latter, they could not stifle the hope that one male volunteer brought to me. In fact, the men that help Vite Trasformate are now some of my greatest heroes. They remind me that this is not a women’s problem. It is a human problem. Half of the population mobilizing in response will not be enough.
Men, you must take a stand. Arguably, you must take a more firm and risky stand than your female counterparts. Male readers, what will you choose – oppression, ignorance, or empowerment?

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